Opponent preview: Tulsa Golden Hurricanes

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Episode nine of previews profiling Notre Dame’s 2010 opponents. Check out the rest of them with Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College, Pitt, Western Michigan and Navy.

The Overview:

While many bristled at the addition of Tulsa to the Notre Dame home schedule, the Golden Hurricanes are a football program on the rise. Head coach Todd Graham has taken the program to its highest point, and while 2009 was a step back, it was only their first losing season since 2004, and the only season under Graham that Tulsa didn’t go bowling.

Last time against the Irish:

What last time? This is the first time Notre Dame has played Tulsa and only the 26th game in school history where the Irish have played a Conference USA football team. The Irish are 23-3 against Conference USA teams, with the majority of those games played against SMU.

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 opponents the Irish face this year, I rank Tulsa as the tenth-toughest game on the schedule.

      3. Boston College Eagles
      4. Michigan Wolverines
      5. Michigan State Spartans
      6. Pitt Panthers
      7. Stanford Cardinal
      8. Purdue Boilermakers
      9. Navy Midshipmen
      10. Tulsa Golden Hurricanes
      12. Western Michigan Broncos

As I mentioned during the Navy preview, the Irish schedule feels tougher and tougher as you analyze it. Tulsa is another one of those games that could be tricky for Notre Dame, with the stakes far higher for the Irish than their opponent. Win, and you just beat Tulsa. But lose? Well — you get the point.

The Match-Up:

Tulsa’s offense took a step backward last season, likely attributed to roster turnover and the departure of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who took over the offense at Auburn under Gene Chizik. Graham’s solution? Find a new Malzahn, a former high school head coach known for his no-huddle, hurry-up spread offense. Enter co-offensive coordinator Chad Morris, one of the most successful high school coaches in Texas history. He’ll handle the passing attack while fellow coordinator Herb Hand handles the rushing attack. If Tulsa can solve some offensive line woes, they’ll have a high-octane passing attack. Quarterback G.J. Kinne is an able triggerman, a Texas transfer that’s a capable runner and passer. He’ll be throwing to a talented set of wide receivers, led by Damaris Johnson, one of the most electric players that the Irish will face this year. Only 5-8, Johnson was a do-everything waterbug-type player who had 1131 yards receiving, averaged 6.7 yards per carry, and was the best return man in the conference.

Defensively, the Golden Hurricanes are in good hands under Graham’s tutelage, and employ a 3-3-5 attack. Their defensive front hinges on the play of Juco transfer Darrell Zellars, who walks into Tulsa an immediate starter and potential impact player. The heart of the defense is senior DeAundre Brown, who plays a hybrid safety/linebacker role. He’s an all-conference performer, made 102 tackes last season and will likely be all over the field against Notre Dame’s new spread attack.

How the Irish will win:

The Irish will be playing their ninth consecutive Saturday when Tulsa rolls into town, and the final Saturday of October will be Paul Longo’s time to shine. The “coat of armor” that Longo built onto the Irish, particularly on the line of scrimmage, will be evident as the Irish run the ball effectively and terrorize an offensive line that was the downfall of the Golden Hurricane offense. Expect to hear from Cierre Wood, who by week nine will have made himself an invaluable part of the offense.

How the Irish will lose:

Nothing scares Irish fans more than an explosive offense run by a mobile quarterback, and Tulsa has all the ingredients needed to become the high-octane unit they were two seasons ago. If the Irish pass rush can’t get to G.J. Kinne, it could be a very long day at Notre Dame stadium. On the opposite side of the ball, the 3-3-5 defense, and its ability to be deceptive, could prove problematic to Notre Dame’s green offensive tackles. Tulsa’s roster is filled with unheralded yet very good athletes, and they’ll be one of the fastest teams the Irish play this season.

Gut Feeling:

This game scares me. This will be Tulsa’s first trip to Notre Dame stadium and the highest-profile game on their schedule. Consider the wagons circled and the Golden Hurricanes motivated. If the fanbase’s apathy toward this game on the schedule is any indication, the Irish could walk into this match-up indifferent, and watch their season go up in smoke if they’re not careful. All that being said, Brian Kelly was brought into Notre Dame to stop games like this from happening. If things go the way I think they could, Tulsa will be playing an Irish team that’s hitting its stride, ready to walk into November on a roll. 

Spring won’t answer all of Notre Dame’s questions

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With spring practice mere weeks away, it is tempting to think Notre Dame’s 2019 will be well in focus by mid-April, if not by the end of March. Some positions may find clarity in that timespan, but other wonderings will hardly be put to rest, if at all. Admittedly, that will not stop discussions of those questions in the interim, including in these parts before spring practice even commences.

Before diving into spring practice previews, let’s acknowledge the things not to be learned before the summer …

Phil Jurkovec’s development will be neither rapid nor dismal this spring. The sample size of drill-heavy moments should not be weighed too heavily when discussing the rising sophomore quarterback’s progress. Barring injury to rising senior Ian Book, Jurkovec will not enter the summer as the Irish starter. Barring injury to Jurkovec, he will not fall lower than second on the depth chart, either.

What may be most crucial to Jurkovec’s short-term success will be the time he spends in the summer studying film of himself throughout the spring. Those lessons could lead to leaps and bounds before August, not necessarily in the meantime.

Notre Dame will not firmly determine a No. 2 cornerback anytime before August, at least not until fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford gets a chance to practice healthy following a torn ACL last August. Rising senior Troy Pride will be the unquestioned heir to Julian Love’s role as the best coverage corner while rising sophomore TaRiq Bracy challenges rising senior Donte Vaughn (pictured at top) to be Pride’s counterpart.

One of those two may emerge, but Crawford will still get a chance in the preseason. If nothing else, his ability to prove healthy and capable enough to handle nickel back duties could ease the pressure on finding someone to fit there, thus perhaps altering the equation throughout the entire secondary.

Running backs coach Lance Taylor’s impact will not be perceptible, possibly not for quite awhile. Taylor’s work will be seen in positional recruiting — which could conceivably take a cycle or two to actually yield the desired results — and in the usage of the running backs in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s September game plans.

Just last preseason, Avery Davis looked the part of a dangerous utility knife. His work in the red zone in preseason practices foreshadowed coming headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. Instead, the quarterback-turned-running back managed just 27 touches for 100 yards and no scores. By November, opposing defensive coordinators’ scouting reports barely mentioned Davis.

If Davis or a rising sophomore (C’Bo Flemister more likely than Jahmir Smith) or even the upperclassmen atop the depth chart impress in the passing game this spring, hold the exhilaration until they do so against a Power-Five foe in September, and preferably not one coming off a season viewed as nothing but a defensive calamity. (No offense, Louisville.)

The Irish will have punter and kicker questions into September. Despite the early enrollment of punter Jay Bramblett and a full offseason devoted to rising junior kicker Jonathan Doerer, replacing multi-year starting specialists is not an undertaking to be taken lightly. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian will spend more time with the legs than they have in recent years.

Winters in South Bend reduce how much spring work kickers and punters get. The new indoor facility will not be ready for use until mid-to-late summer, meaning every day the Irish have to spend indoors this spring is a day the kickers are unlikely to get more than a few swings in.

Doerer might have an excellent Blue-Gold Game (on April 13), knocking in multiple 40-yard field goals. Bramblett could boom a couple punts with no signs of nerves. Until they show such in pressure situations, their real worth will remain unknown.

Such are the perils of talkin’ ‘bout practice, to quote an 11-time NBA All-Star as All-Star Weekend begins.

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting success continues into 2020

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Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2019 included a defensive line emphasis featuring 5 four-star prospects. That trend has already continued into the next recruiting cycle with the Wednesday commitment from rivals.com four-star defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (J.K. Mullen High School; Denver).

The No. 17 defensive tackle in the country, per rivals.com, Keanaaina joins Düsseldorf defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger among the five commits in the Irish class of 2020. Keanaaina holds offers from all the Power Five conferences, including the majority of the Pac 12, led by Oregon and USC, and the majority of the Big 10, led by Michigan and Ohio State.

His anticipatory play is aided by solid tackling form and a wide body. That frame, in particular, should lend itself to further development in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.

By signing two defensive tackles in the class of 2019, the Irish depth chart reached minimum levels at the position. All six tackles currently on that depth chart should return in 2020, making it less of an absolute necessity to sign a pair this cycle, though that remains more likely than not.

Notre Dame officially announces Lance Taylor as RB coach

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Notre Dame finally confirmed the hire of Lance Taylor as running backs coach Tuesday. Taylor’s addition to the Irish coaching staff was first widely reported last month.

Replacing Autry Denson — who took over as head coach at Charleston Southern — Taylor spent the last two seasons coaching receivers with the Carolina Panthers and was the running backs coach at Stanford from 2014 to 2016.

“I was primarily looking for two things,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “The candidate had to have the right skill set. He needs to be a great teacher and communicator. He also needs to fit Notre Dame, culturally, and Lance, most certainly, possesses all of those qualities. He recruited at an extremely high level during his time at Stanford, and he worked with the very best in the NFL. His ability to bring both of those experiences together makes him a perfect fit for our staff.”

The time at Stanford, in particular, sets up Taylor for success at Notre Dame, having successfully recruited players to an academic institution and then developed them to on-field success. Namely, Taylor recruited Bryce Love and worked with both him and Christian McCaffrey.

RELATED READING: Lance Taylor checks all the boxes Notre Dame needs in new running backs coach

“I’ve been blessed to work at some incredible places in my career, but Notre Dame is truly special,” Taylor said. “I’m honored and humbled to represent this incredible University as its running backs coach. I’d like to thank both Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for this opportunity. I’m excited to get on campus, meet our players and get to work.”

Taylor will have his work cut out for him this spring as the Irish need to replace Dexter Williams. Rising junior Jafar Armstrong is the presumed starter, granted health, with rising senior Tony Jones his primary backup. After those two, Taylor has nothing but raw and unproven talent awaiting him in rising sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister and early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams, not to mention rising junior quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis.

No other coaching staff turnover should be expected at this point in the offseason.

Leading candidates to be Notre Dame captains

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Notre Dame has not begun spring practice yet, unlike Labor Day opponent Louisville. (Yes, really, the Cardinals held their first practice under new head coach Scott Satterfield on Monday.) At some point near the beginning of spring practice, though, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will likely name a few 2019 team captains.

Notre Dame narrowed the candidates for the parlor game of guessing those captains by announcing the eight “SWAT” leaders earlier this month, a subset identified as the motivating and organizing forces of offseason activities. Those eight …

— Senior quarterback Ian Book
— Senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg
— Senior safety Jalen Elliott
— Fifth-year receiver Chris Finke
— Senior safety Alohi Gilman (pictured at top)
— Junior right tackle Robert Hainsey
— Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem
— Senior defensive end Julian Okwara

Half of the eight could have eligibility in 2020 — Book, Eichenberg, Gilman and Hainsey — but the better indicators of captainship do not inherently tie to that. For example, it is expected Gilman will head to the NFL following the 2019 season if he plays well enough to warrant that pondering at all. His transfer following the 2017 season was entirely due to professional aspirations. That, along with his competitive attitude very clearly demonstrated during last season’s unbeaten run, makes Gilman a frontrunner in this speculation.

Book, meanwhile, is unlikely to be one of the captains simply because the starting quarterback already serves in that role to some de facto extent. The coaching staff generally prefers to elevate a few others while not taking away from the inherent nature of the quarterback position.

On the other hand, the Irish have had at least one captain on the offensive line each of the last seven seasons. Either Eichenberg or Hainsey seems positioned to continue that, the former with an additional year in the program but the latter with one more season of playing time under his belt.

Presuming one of those offensive linemen joins Gilman, it remains likely Notre Dame names at least one more captain. His rise from walk-on to offensive contributor and multiple-year starter makes Finke uniquely relatable to the entire roster.

Guessing here is, of course, inconsequential, but with spring practice about three weeks away on the horizon, pondering now helps pass that time.